To Bye or Not To Bye? In the Big East Tournament, It Doesn't Matter
Big East coaches may not be the type to take advice from a Danish man famous for changing his mind only slightly less than Brett Favre, but Hamlet might've had a valuable piece of advice when it comes to the double-bye in the Big East tournament.
"There is nothing either good or bad," Shakespeare's dour prince famously offered, "but thinking makes it so."
When it comes to the league's double-bye in the tournament, it's not bad advice from a character written more than 300 years before the invention of the picketh and rolleth.
To bye, he might've asked, or not to bye?
Tuesday, the presidents of the Big East schools opted to retain the double-bye in the Big East tournament, consigning the coaches' wish to eliminate the system in favor of a regular four-game tournament to the round ball round file.
In May, the league's coaches voted unanimously to end the double-bye system after just two seasons because of complaints that teams had an edge playing the day before. After all, five of the eight teams given double byes had promptly lost in the quarterfinals.
"I'm not for the double bye," Louisville coach Pitino told FanHouse's Brett McMurphy in late May. "It doesn't keep you sharp enough."
All of which sounds fine, except it makes absolutely no sense.
Take Louisville. The Cardinals played their last regular-season game Saturday, March 6 and were forced to take an interminable three days off until they played their first game in the Big East tournament, the second round of the tournament the following Wednesday.
The sixth-seeded Cardinals wasted no time losing to 11th-seed Cincinnati.
But can you really blame time off when it's just three days? The Tin Man wouldn't develop rust that quickly if he had an affair with the Morton's Salt girl and spent three days in the ocean.
After all, rust wasn't a problem when the Cardinals were off three days following their Tuesday, March 2 loss to Marquette before beating Syracuse that Saturday. In fact, the average number of days off for Louisville between games (after Jan. 1, 2010) was just over three days per. Heck, the minimum number of off days between the league championship game and the NCAA tournament is four off days and no one has ever clamored to move the event to Sunday because teams are rusty.
And rust certainly wasn't a problem in 2009 when the Cardinals were off four days and two byes before sweeping to the Big East title.
No offense to Pitino, who is as brilliant a basketball mind as they come, but coaches, like everyone else, want to rationalize their failures and the days off argument seems as good a liability life raft as any. Rationalization, after all is human nature. We all do it to explain our shortcomings, creating a somewhat fictionalized reason for why events didn't go the way we wanted. (Excluding the fact that I've never been able to get a date with Sandra Bullock simply because I'm too good-looking. That one, ladies and gentlemen, is purely factual.)
No, the problem in the Big East isn't the double-bye or the single bye. The problem is the Big East is just too damn good.
The downside of the league's current 16-team superstructure is that when the top four seeds finally get around to playing on the tournament's third day, the only teams left are the sorts you don't want to meet in the dark alley of a bracket. In the five years of the Big East's Sweet 16 setup, the league has put 8, 7, 8, 6 and 8 teams into the NCAA tournament, so by the time you qualify for the quarters, no matter how many byes there are, you're playing a team that's more than likely in the upper half of the NCAA tournament draw.
And yes, there have been upsets. In the first two seasons of the double-bye (and the bizarre tiered bracket that looks like Picasso did the seeding while on a bender), the top four teams in the Big East are an uninspiring 3-5 in the quarterfinals.
The only problem? In the 16-team Big East, top seeds have always had a hell of a time in the quarterfinals, no matter the setup. Since 2006, the league's top four teams are 9-11, markedly the worst record among BCS leagues using a first-round bye system. The ACC top four seeds are 14-6 since 2006, the Big Ten is 11-9 and the Big 12 is 14-6 as well. (We discarded the SEC entirely. The only thing less sensical than the Big East's bracket-by-Legos is the SEC's divisional seeding when the West is, year in and year out, its own little mid-major subdivision).
Tellingly, the only year the top four seeds all won in the Big East tournament was the "down" year for the league's NCAA tournament teams. In 2007, the league "only" placed six teams in the Big Dance, which would constitute a strong to very strong year for a normal BCS conference. Accordingly, the top four seeds swept the quarterfinals, generally falling in line with a good year for top teams 12-team BCS league.
But not the big bad Big East.
One-through-eight, the Big East is the best conference in the nation, but the dregs of the league muck up the overall ratings, allowing the argument to be made that tighter leagues like the ACC are, overall, superior. However, by the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, the dregs have long since gone about their spring break plans.
Consider the quality of opposition that awaits a Big East team since 2006.
In the last two years, the seasons that have coaches in a tizzy to change the format, seven of the eight teams that awaited top four seeds were all ranked in the top 38 of Ken Pomeroy's year-end rankings. Generally speaking, you were playing no worse than an NCAA tournament nine-seed just to advance to the semifinals. (The lone exception was 75th-rated Cincinnati, which upset Pitino's "unsharpened" bunch in the previous round, before getting ousted by a West Virginia team with an extra day off.)
In the three prior years, 11 of the 12 teams that advanced to the quarterfinals were ranked inside the top 38, the lone exception being Syracuse's McNamara miracle bunch.
So, in five seasons of the super-sized Big East, 18 of the 20 teams awaiting the top four seeds in the quarterfinals have been top 38 rated teams by Pomeroy. Ten of those eighteen teams managed upsets (the lone missing upset was again Syracuse's extraordinary run in 2006).
Compare that to normal 12-team leagues.
In the ACC, only three of 20 teams awaiting in the quarterfinals have been top-38 teams (plus one near-miss Miami at 39). But of those three, one managed an upset. In the Big Ten, which, like the Big East, tends to be less top heavy than the ACC, seven top-38 Pomeroy teams have awaited in the quarterfinals and five of them have pulled upsets. In the Big 12, another seven top-38 teams waited in the quarters, and five of those pulled upsets.
So it's not simply the Big East, it's a question of talent distribution.
Draw a top-38 team in the quarterfinals of a BCS conference and generally you should begin wondering whether to pack socks or underwear first for the trip home. Ten of 18 teams inside the top 38 pulled upsets in the Big East. Eleven of fifteen managed the trick in single-bye leagues.
Of the remaining 43 games among the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12, top-four teams walloped teams outside the season-ending Pomeroy top 38, 33-10. Needless to say, those games just don't exist in the Big East.
Frankly, the Big East should feel good about itself; it's best teams are winning against top 38 teams at a higher rate than the rest of the nation. And face it, there's always going to be more urgency for a team fighting to move up on the seed line than a top seed that's just trying to avoid injuries on the way to March. Perhaps the extra day's rest is actually an advantage.
But if the league wants to fix its postseason, it needs to fix its regular season first.
Currently, the league plays an 18-game schedule, with only three home-and-home series. This setup might give a rough outline of the top and bottom of the league, but rarely does a good job of lining up the right teams up top.
Just look at some of the "upsets" of the 16-team era.
This past season, top-seed Syracuse lost to seven-seed Georgetown. That same Georgetown team would earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, beat eventual national champion Duke so badly in front of Barack Obama that the president must've been considering his executive options to stay the execution, and, even with an upset loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament, finished with a Pomeroy rating of 13 (Syracuse was four). Realistically, Georgetown was the third best team in the Big East this season, and it wasn't particularly close. Yet the Hoyas, who had to play near year-long top 10 teams Syracuse and Villanova twice, earned an eight seed. (Compare Syracuse' draw to Pomeroy ratings for teams other top seeds faced, all non-tournament qualifiers; Duke drew Virginia (76), Kansas drew Texas Tech (69), and Ohio State drew Michigan (63))
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh earned a No. 2 seed despite a season-ending 31 Pomeroy rating. Perhaps not surprisingly, they lost to Notre Dame, which had beaten the Panthers in their only previous meeting and finished just seven spots below Pitt in the ratings. The Panthers drew patsies Seton Hall and St. John's twice (in addition to West Virginia).
In 2009, second-seed Pittsburgh (Pomeroy rating of five) lost to seventh-seed West Virginia, whose Pomeroy rating was almost better than its seed (The Mountaineers finished the year ninth, two spots below their Big East seed).
Or consider 2008, the last year of the single-bye Big East tournament, when top seeds still went 1-3 in the quarterfinals. The third seed, Notre Dame lost to a superior Marquette team, which was seeded sixth, but finished 11th in the ratings, well ahead of the 28th-place Irish. No. 4 seed UConn suffered a similar fate, losing to a lower seed but a higher-rated team in the Pomeroy ratings.
Besides, if playing a day sooner is so beneficial, where are the upsets in the tournament's second round?
Through two years of the double-bye system, the second round of the Big East tournament has been more predictable than a Cleveland Browns football season. Higher-ranked teams are 7-1 in the second-round of the Big East the last two seasons, despite the fact all of their opponents won the previous day. Why? Because the talent gap in the bottom of the Big East is cavernous compared to the top.
Frankly, if playing the day before really helped keep a team stay sharp after such a small layoff as three to four days, then Duke and North Carolina would schedule a non-conference opponent before their yearly tilts every year. Or someone would. Outside of pre-conference tournaments, no teams schedule games back-to-back.
Nor does anyone complain about playing in an Elite Eight on a Saturday and having a week off before the Final Four. Because it's not the time off that's the issue, it's the talent of the team you face, and nowhere is it as challenging among the top eight as the Big East.
No matter the format, as long as the Big East is a 16-team super-conference, upsets in the quarterfinal will continue, early and often.
The ratings make it so.